Problems in Texas

Foster Children Struggle in Texas, Accountability Lacking

The holiday season is here. Hanukah has already started, and Christmas is just around the corner. As always, I like to take this opportunity to review a couple of topics that have caused controversy this year as well as look for signs of hope for better outcomes for our foster children.

With regard to abysmal lapses in child care and protection, Texas still ranks as one of the states with the worst track record in the care of foster children. More than 12,000 children are in long-term state foster care. Unfortunately, the more time a child spends in foster care, the greater their risk of abuse. Nearly 18% of children who come into the foster care system do so because of abuse. But once in foster care, children are abused at a much higher rate of nearly 33%. And when foster kids hit age thirteen, their chances of leaving the system by adoption drops to nearly 1%, meaning that thousands of Texas foster children will be calling state institutions and group facilities home for many years.

Texas is now marking the three year anniversary when U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack became involved with overseeing the Texas foster care system after a scathing report highlighted several areas that negatively impact the safety and well-being of the state’s foster children. The number of child deaths that occur in Texas are staggering. In 2016, 207 children died in Texas, making the state the leader in child deaths. The majority of children were either under the care of Texas CPS (Child Protective Services) or had some record with CPS at the time of their death.

Other issues involve deceitful practices that tear families apart. Less than a month ago, a Houston CPS worker and his supervisor were found guilty of taking two children from their parents – a two-year-old daughter and five-month-old son -- through lies and deceit. Sadly, the daughter was abused while in foster care. The damages awarded to the parents were $127,000, the largest such award ever in Texas. The amount could have been greater except that the judge didn’t want to overload Texas tax payers, who will essentially be footing the bill. The parents’ attorney, Stephanie Powell, said, "It's an unfortunate epidemic and until someone like Judge Schneider makes CPS accountable, it's going to continue."

Other serious deficiencies within Texas CPS include the use of visitation workers to supplement work performed by trained CPS staff. According to the Nov. 21, 2018 article by Robert T. Garrett of The Dallas Morning News, Texas has contracts with about 100 non-full-fledged CPS caseworkers. These workers were hired to check on remotely placed foster kids. Although someone is visiting the children, these visits are essentially a token effort to say that someone saw that the child was alive. Judge Jack wrote ,"Children don't feel comfortable sharing their problems with the rotating roster of ‘I See You’ workers, who often fail to meet with them in private as required. 'I See You' workers are clearly not equipped to be caseworkers." These workers were never part of the court process or planning for the outcome of the child.

Fortunately, there is reason to have hope of change. U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack just issued a ruling that will pressure Texas to investigate the services at the many private agencies that care for thousands of foster kids. The judge’s ruling also mandates the cessation of the ‘I See You’ visitation workers within the next six month.

One of the key problems in foster care nationally is the lack of accountability for agencies. This dilemma with accountability permeates every aspect of foster care. #FamilyFirst was a popular hashtag on social media this year, and many legislators across the country pushed for new laws that would put more focus on keeping families together. Apparently CPS didn’t get the memo.

My non-profit, Forever Homes for Foster Kids, specializes in international family finding, the mandated activity to identify, locate, and notify parents and other adult family members when their child relative is placed in foster care. We experienced a very disturbing case this year where a California foster child wrote us directly and asked us to find his father who lives in Mexico. Although we offered to do the work pro bono for the agency, we were not supplied with the necessary information to perform the family finding. After some time, we were able to reach the supervisor, who decided that the agency would not move forward with the case. The result of that decision is that this child’s father most likely will never be notified. Without specialized assistance, the child will also most likely age out with no connection to his father.

Let’s look at the lack of accountability in this matter. This child was discriminated against because his father lives outside the U.S. If his father lived in Maine, a distance of more than 3,000 miles, efforts would have been made to find him. However, this child is disenfranchised by not receiving the same effort to locate and notify his father, who lives outside the U.S. yet perhaps may be as close as five miles south of San Diego.

Maybe you’re wondering, “Why should tax dollars go to pay for family finding since the parent is outside the U.S?” One excellent reason is that an appeals court could overturn a Termination of Parental Rights (TPR), or a subsequent adoption of this child. This is exactly what happened in a recent case. The Texas Appellate Court reversed a TPR on the grounds that the father, who lives in Mexico, had not been properly served notice of the state’s intent to terminate his parental rights. Imagine the thousands of dollars wasted by both CPS and the Court in conducting a TPR that now has to be retried at additional expense to CPS and the Court. The difference in cost between conducting the mandated family finding and the court costs incurred are significant.

Is anyone in foster care going to lose their job over these decisions and inappropriate actions? Definitely not! Neither of the two staff members in the Texas case above that will cost the state $127,000 have lost their jobs. The supervisor in the northern California county is still employed despite violating a foster child’s civil rights. One of the reasons for a lack of penalties is that while family finding is mandated under the Fostering Connections Act of 2008, there are no rules regarding the execution of family finding. Without any rules, there can be no criminal charges or penalties. Without repercussions for bad acts, there really is no accountability, not unless a judge steps in, as U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack has. But these occurrence are few and far between.

The way to a better, brighter year for foster children is for lawmakers to step up and make the necessary changes so that accountability is part of foster care. Texas State Sen. Judith Zaffirini is quoted as saying, “Our children are our most precious resource and ensuring their safety should be a top priority for the Legislature.” The Texas state government can also take steps to embrace many of the proposed changes to its foster care system, so that foster kids are better protected and fewer die under the watch of CPS.

I hope you will take time to reflect on the good that has occurred in your life this year. We all have something for which to be thankful, although sometimes it takes effort to identify what that could be. There are millions of caring, dedicated people working for and pulling for foster children. Together, we can do more to make 2019 the year when fewer children enter foster care, family finding becomes more widespread, and the process more thorough -- resulting in more foster kids being placed with family members. That would be a wonderful gift to give to tens of thousands of foster children for the holidays and years beyond.